"Our fourth graders were focusing on observing, listening to, and writing about the transitions and transformations that took place between winter and spring," reports Jericho, VT, teacher Denise Larrabee.
As the spring flowers emerged, so did her students' interest in those colorful harbingers. "My team teacher, Sharyl Green, and I wanted to build on that experience and design an end-of-year science unit to engage the students as investigators, spark their creativity, and help them better understand concepts such as structure and function," she explains. Since wildflowers and garden flowers were soon blooming in profusion, Denise and Sharyl chose to capture students' interests and imaginations with a four-week exploration of these mysterious beauties.
Initial "mini-lectures" and exchanges about the purposes and structures of flowers gave students a conceptual base and revealed what they knew and what questions they had. To inspire explorations, the students and teachers brought in a bounty of blooming buds, which became the focus for individual and group examination and discovery. (Permission to pick was a requirement!) "Since the students were aware of the major flower parts, we found ourselves focusing their observations -- by keeping a chart -- on the numbers and types of different parts," explains Denise. "But we soon realized that they were much more intrigued by simply observing and trying to capture their subjects in sketches, so we let them go with that," she adds. As their observations and sketches got more detailed, students were asked to consider and jot down things they wondered about regarding their subjects.
"To prompt students to think like scientists, we assigned them to investigate one of their flower questions at home over a weekend," says Denise. Students were charged with forming testable questions, conducting investigations (using controls, if appropriate), and detailing their work and conclusions on data sheets. The following week, the young scientists described studies of flower longevity (in the garden vs. after cutting), how well different liquids preserved cut flowers, and the impact of light and darkness on flower development. The youngsters' class reports and demonstrations highlighting their experiences provided fertile ground for thinking about how science really works, reports Denise. "Their conclusions tended to feature lingering questions ('I discovered X, but I was thinking about...,' 'What I'd like to do next time is...')," she explains. "I encouraged students to follow those threads, to consider new questions and next steps, and to piggyback on one another's experiences," she adds. This prompted another round of explorations and a deeper understanding of the inner life of flowers.
Creatively Capturing Concepts
"We wanted to wrap up this end-of-year flower study with an engaging assignment that drew on students' creativity to express their understanding of plant structures and functions," explains Denise. The upshot? Small groups of students were charged with creating a fictional flowering plant, then using art supplies and found materials to bring their vision to life.
The key question underlying the assignment was, How does my flower become pollinated? The cleverly named flowers -- Oops-a-daisy, for example -- had to reflect a creative, yet workable design to ensure pollination, and the petal numbers had to indicate the plant's status as a monocot (usually multiples of three) or dicot (multiples of four or five). The inventions also had to feature root systems and leaves designed for a particular type of environment, such as a desert.
"The presentations of wonderful three-dimensional creations that evolved from early sketches revealed students' growing understanding of pollination," explains Denise. "Their works also brought to life the connection between art and science that's so important in our classrooms."